If you or your loved one has just been diagnosed with cancer, you must be going through a surge of emotions. From dismay and fear that the word cancer invokes, to a lot of practical thoughts, it is natural to be overwhelmed. What are the costs, what about your job, who will look after the kids, mortality, expenses – and yes, not least is whether your hair will fall out now.
This is not a trivial concern and is one of the first thoughts that follow in the wake of the cancer diagnosis. However, as with any other situation, looking the demon in the eye and knowing more about it will help you not only cope but thrive.
Hair loss due to chemotherapy is only temporary! Keep that in mind as you equip yourself for this process with a positive heart.
We have broken down the whys, hows and whats of chemo related hair loss for you. Feel free to ask your Doctor more about which specific treatment you are being given for your particular diagnosis as this varies.
Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Hair Loss?
Chemotherapy is the name given to the treatment that uses cytostatic drugs. These are the drugs that destroy or slow the rapidly dividing cancerous cells. Unfortunately, they also tend to kill off other healthier cells like those in one’s hair follicles, thus causing hair loss. The other rapidly dividing cells that the chemo affects are cells in the digestive tract which causes the nausea, and cells in your bone marrow which leads to a drop in the platelet count.
Is it Inevitable?
Hair loss is usually an inevitable part of chemotherapy although there have been patients who have managed to avoid this experience. The intensity of hair loss depends on the particular combination of cancer fighting drugs that your treatment exposes you to. The factors that influence whether you develop hair loss or how much you lose depends also on how intense the dosage is and how many times you are exposed to it.
Which Chemo Drugs Cause Hair loss?
There are some chemo drugs that accelerate hair loss faster than others – but the effect of this too will depend on the individual. Listed below are some drugs that are known to cause hair loss – just keep in mind the greater good that they are doing:
- Adriamycin (doxorubicin)
- Cytoxan or Neosar (cyclophosphamide)
- Taxol (paclitaxel)
- Taxotere (docetaxel)
- Cerubine (daunorubicin)
- Ellence (epirubicin)
- VePesid (etoposide)
- Idamycin (idarubicin)
- Ifex (ifosfamide)
- Ixempra (exabepilone)
- Camptosar (irinotecan)
- Hycamtin (topotecan)
- Navelbine (vinorelbine)
- Ixempra (Ixabepilone)
Chemo Drugs That Rarely Cause Hair Loss
These drugs in themselves do not cause hair loss but they may be combined with drugs that do.
- Paraplatin (carboplatin)
- Xeloda (capecitabine)
- Gliadel (carmustine)
- Platinol (cisplatin)
- Fludara or Oforta (vludarabine)
- Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo (methotrexate)
- Mutamicin (mitomycin C)
- Novantrone (mitroxantrone)
- Procarbazine (sold by generic name in US)
- Purinethol (6-mercaptopurine)
- Zanosar (streptozotocin)
When Does Chemotherapy Affect Hair Loss?
The effect of chemotherapy on hair appears about 2 to 3 weeks after the first round of chemotherapy. The hair will fall out in large chunks or gradually – it varies. Before you begin chemotherapy, you may want to cut your hair short and start looking for a suitable wig or scarf.
Does it hurt?
Some people do experience some pain when the hair falls out. Most breast and other cancer patients report irritability and sensitivity of the scalp. Both are temporary sensations though.
Will I Lose Body Hair Too?
Possibly. Although this also depends on your particular treatment. You may lose the hair on your arms, legs, armpits, groins, eyebrows, and sometimes your eyelashes. Again, this is not inevitable and it is temporary.
Importantly – When Will My Hair Grow Back?
Usually, soon after chemotherapy is over though it may take up to a month or two. Sometimes hair grows back even before chemotherapy is over. The hair texture and even colour may vary from your original hair. The hormone therapy given to patients with breast cancer may influence the growth even more.
Coping With The Trauma Of Hair Loss
There are several steps you can take to manage the shock of losing your hair.
- Remember that this is temporary and that the same drugs are destroying the cancerous cells also, helping you to heal.
- Ensure that you keep up good nutrition for both your internal recovery and for the nutrients that your hair follicles will need to grow back as the chemo stops.
- Keep your scalp clean, and conditioned.
- Do stay clear of any perfumed hair products or hair treatments like perming, straightening, colouring etc. The hair follicles will be too weak and the scalp too sensitive to take this.
- Ensure your head is covered with a wig and/or a scarf. In fact, it is advised to start planning for a wig ahead of your chemo treatment. A professional wig maker and stylist will ensure that you find a natural looking wig that will make you look good and feel more positive.
- Along with a wig, stock up on hair accessories that you can experiment with.
Just keep your eye on the end of the chemotherapy hair loss timeline. Eat right, have fun with a beautiful wig, pull out those shades and step ahead with confidence.